Plowed Under

Kent Meyers: "[Writing] is like farming. Whether it's going well or going poorly, I put the words down. I do the work."

"WHAT'S HAPPENING NOW is the same thing that's always happened," says essayist and novelist Kent Meyers. "Farmers are your modern-day Native Americans being pushed around by forces larger than they are, big-money forces pushing them off the land."

Though he's not a farmer anymore, Meyers, 42, knows what it's like to be displaced. Raised near Morgan, Minn., Meyers remembers the year his father died, when he and his brothers worked to bring in the harvest, only to see their family farm auctioned off piece by piece. It's a memory he recalls with elegiac precision in "Selling the Parts," one of the final pieces in his new collection of personal essays, The Witness of Combines (University of Minnesota Press). "Of course," he writes, "ways of life go whether you watch or not... After everything is gone, emptiness is left. Space. When you walk in it, you hear life echoing."

Elsewhere in The Witness of Combines, Meyers finds happier echoes of childhood: the hum of machinery, the rhythms of work, and the gentle cycles of family life. In one essay, "Old Waters," he recalls picking rocks out of a field with his father before plowing. The monotony of the task leads him into a lyrical reflection on the continuity of the soil, stretching back into prehistory when a great glacier covered the fields and first set the rocks grinding up through the earth. Each of Meyers's tightly crafted essays is elevated by this deeply felt connection to the land--a personal bond built on years of labor. "When you depend on the land, on the animals for your own life," he explains, "it's a moral relationship. When land becomes a luxury, and you can take things or leave them, that ethical relationship is broken."

These days, Meyers lives a long way from his native prairie soil. In fact, he lives a long way from anywhere: Spearfish, S. D. He makes his living there cultivating crops of budding authors as a creative writing professor at Black Hills State University. Nevertheless, some of the old habits remain. Rising at dawn, Meyers writes for three hours before walking the mile or so to work. "It's like farming," he says, "in the sense that whether it's going well or going poorly, I put the words down. I do the work." This Midwestern work ethic has recently started to pay off. After collecting a healthy pile of rejection slips from New York publishers, Meyers is releasing three books this year. Along with The Witness of Combines, he's written a forthcoming collection of short stories, called Light in the Crossing, and a luminous first novel, The River Warren (Hungry Mind).

Named for the mythical glacial river that once flooded the Midwest, The River Warren has its source in a small-town legend that Meyers heard growing up. Two-Speed Crandall, a semi driver and enigmatic local misfit, roars into the sleepy town of Cloten in a small apocalypse of steel and smoke, crashing his truck and killing himself, his wife, and a trailerful of cattle. In his wake, eight narrators, including Two-Speed's son Luke, begin to unravel the mystery of the crash. At the same time, they delve into a shared past, unearthing the secrets that bind them as a community. Despite its symphony of voices, The River Warren's most remarkable moments are the silent spaces between the pages. A confidence whispered in the cab of Two-Speed's truck moments before the crash, for instance, is never heard, yet becomes the heart of the novel. "I try to leave white spaces," Meyers says, "things left unsaid." In these spaces, Meyers finds a sense of loss, not just for the dead, but also for the broken covenant with the soil.

"The relationship to the land is changing," Meyers says. "Now big-money forces are pushing out families, pushing out communities." Without a connection to the earth, there is no continuous history. Without history, no stories. And without stories to share, there is no community. With many of Minnesota's small farming towns pushed to the edge of bankruptcy by dismal crop prices, the future looks grim. Perhaps Meyers's stories represent a kind of history, a testament to a way of life that is already passing into memory.

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